Evoking one artistic discipline while using an entirely different one is no easy task. Yet for as long as moving pictures have captivated audiences, they’ve also captivated a certain group of writers, who’ve viewed the existence of cinema as an implicit challenge. Namely, how does one capture the essence of a film using only words on a page?
Some writers have opted to make the process of filmmaking their subject. Others have borrowed aspects of cinematic language and conveyed them onto the page, while others have incorporated the parallel structure of screenplays within their prose. When done well, this evocation creates a work that tells a compelling story and creates a kind of phantom film along the way. Here is a look at several books that blend fiction and film in unexpected ways.
Joshua Mattson’s novel A Short Film About Disappointment is absolutely saturated with the cinematic. It’s told through a series of movie reviews, but it also chronicles its narrator’s attempt to make a film himself. Throw in some glimpses of a harsh near-future society and a title that alludes to the works of Krzysztof Kieślowski, and the result is a singular blend of the literary and the filmic.
In Haruki Murakami’s fiction, nearly anything can happen: characters vanish, the borders between worlds dissolve, realism abruptly becomes anything but. In telling the surreal narrative in his short novel After Dark, Murakami utilizes an abundance of cinematic language, heightening the sense of voyeurism and mysterious presences that abounds in the book.
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Mark Z. Danielewski
Among the many things that Mark Z. Danielewski’s cult novel House of Leaves can be said to be about is the act of storytelling – and much of the book focuses on a nonexistent documentary about a house whose properties defy all known laws of physics. It’s from that contrast between the knowable and the deeply unknown that narrative tension arises – along with a growing sense of horror that’s sustained throughout the book.
Sergio de la Pava
Sergio de la Pava’s sprawling novel Lost Empress occasionally shifts into a format that echoes the style of a screenplay. It’s a knowing nod to another medium in a book whose plot combines two tried-and-true cinematic storylines – a heist narrative and an underdog sports story – en route to reaching deeper conclusions about the criminal justice system, incarceration, and class in America.
At the heart of Gemma Files’s novel Experimental Film is, well, an experimental film with roots in the early days of the medium. But for all that this novel abounds with lived-in details of the indie film world, that’s only one facet of its greater focus on storytelling – and the nightmarish effects that certain stories can have on those who hear them.
The way that a film can evolve from its inception to its final cut is frequently fascinating – and in his novel The Making of Zombie Wars, Aleksandar Hemon turns the creative process into a running theme. The frustrated screenwriter hero of the novel is constantly coming up with ideas and revising them; the way that this dovetails with his life in Chicago makes for a host of uneasy parallels throughout the book.
Ned Beauman’s Madness is Better Than Defeat is a novel about journeys into the mysterious, unlikely adventurers, and long-lost secrets coming to light. It’s the stuff of pulp adventure, which helps explain why part of the novel is centered around an ill-fated filmmaking expedition lost in the jungle for years. Structurally, Beauman uses film as a kind of meta-narrative device, leading towards a resonant conclusion.
Catherynne M. Valente
In telling the story of an alternate history wherein the solar system was colonized a century ago and the development of certain filmmaking techniques occured on a very different scale, Catherynne M. Valente evokes a golden age of cinema that never was. Valente also uses the presence of filmmaking to create numerous layers to her narrative, making for a boldly plotted work of fiction.
The stories in Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection The Dead Fish Museum abound with allusions to the cinematic, from the frustrations of a screenwriter to the most mundane of tasks on an adult film set. In telling these stories, D’Ambrosio rarely goes to the places one would expect when blending film and prose; the results are often revelatory.